The last mile

Amid Economic Pickle, Zimbabwe’s Internet Woes Are Reawakened

By  |  April 7, 2022

Africa’s internet connectivity troubles are far from over. Though the digital economy is growing, some small to mid-sized economies are still in the rough phases of establishing sustainable and affordable connectivity. Moreover, despite being repeatedly condemned, internet censorship persists in some pockets of the region. 

A low-income economy emerging from years of economic cum social crisis, Zimbabwe is a stark example. 

In early January of 2019, the largest mobile carrier in Zimbabwe, Strive Masiwaya’s Econet Wireless, sent out a note indicating its compliance with an authoritarian directive. Apparently, the Southeast African country’s Minister of State for National Security wanted the internet shuttered. 

A few days after Econet followed the directive, it became more evident that the country was in the middle of a massive internet shutdown. With internet coverage abruptly suspended nationwide, Zimbabweans invested their faith in virtual private networks (VPNs) and soon took the MNOs to court. 

Net access was restricted in a porous ploy to quell rising protests regarding the sudden escalation of fuel prices but was intermittently restored and re-shuttered. Towards the end of January, social media access was restored, thanks to a court order that seemed to defile the iron-fisted rule birthed by the now-defunct Mugabe-led administration. 

It has been a couple of years since those heavily protestant times, yet Zimbabwe’s internet woes are far from over. 

Per network data from NetBlocks, there were major internet service slowdowns for scores of users in the country on the 20th of February 2022. Since a political opposition rally was held in the nation’s capital, Harare, on the same day, locals opine the incumbent leadership had a hand in the glitch. 

What’s worse? Just last year, Zimbos were hit by an unexpected wave of exorbitant internet costs, one which most certainly brought things to a much-needed standstill. At the time, it cost USD 15 [about Z$ 1,300] to get 8GB of mobile data on Econet. A few months until March, 8GB was hiked to USD 18 [Z$1,560], while 50GB cost about USD 47 [Z$ 400]. 

“I [have] stopped subscribing to private WiFi internet on my mobile phone, and yes, I have been a regular subscriber of Econet’s private WiFi, but with the prices up again now, I just have to do without using the internet. It is almost as though Zimbabwe doesn’t want her citizens online,” Tseyani, a user, told the press

At present, the expensiveness of Zimbabwe’s internet services has brought about some cross-border mobile data trade. According to a coverage by rest of world, some resilient Zimbabweans have resorted to buying data-loaded Mozambican SIM cards. In the neighbouring country, 2GB costs just USD 3, courtesy of Movitel, the biggest telco in Mozambique. 

As the story goes, this newly spawned yet lucrative SIM card trade is gradually transforming border towns like Chimanimani into hotspots where almost every Zimbo visits to get cheaper data and faster internet access. Chimanimani, in particular, is benefiting from Mozambican signals and is fledgling into some sort of remote working hub. 

In March last year, the Postal and Telecommunications Regulatory Authority of Zimbabwe (POTRAZ) reported an internet penetration rate of 60.9 percent, marking an improvement from the rate of 59.9 percent reported in December 2020.

According to a report by cybersecurity company Surfshark, Zimbabwe is the third most restrictive country in the world in terms of social media policies—especially during polls. In Surfshark’s explanation, the government’s role in slowing down internet access during the launch of the Coalition for Change campaign in Highfield, Harare, effectively put Zimbabwe among the world’s leading internet censors.

Generally, Zimbabwe, even under a new leadership, has been battling an economic downturn. Internet costs are not alone on the high side. 

For instance, the set-to-be-released highest Zimbabwean currency denomination, the Z$100 note, cannot afford a single loaf of bread because the country is in the middle of an inflation crisis. Thanks to the ongoing Russia-Ukraine cataclysm, the country’s interest rates are currently at an all-time high.

Featured Image: Newsmozy

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